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The Patriotic Consensus is a work of local history filtered through the larger geopolitical events of the Second World War. The result is a fascinating look at Winnipeg's response to national wartime policies.

University of Winnipeg history professor Jody Perrun's account is unabashedly community-focused. "Most people's daily routines are not conducted as members of this abstraction we call the state, but are experienced most directly as members of smaller communities, either individually or in the voluntary associations of civil society," he writes.

The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders depart for training on May 24, 1940.

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The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders depart for training on May 24, 1940.

"This is the level at which the majority experienced war on the home front."

The book has its genesis in Perrun's PhD. thesis. Books rooted in a dissertation often don't lend themselves to a wide audience, but Perrun's depth of research, coupled with an ease of telling, makes for engaging social history.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Winnipeg was the fourth-largest city in Canada. Though the majority of its residents were of British ethnic origin, it contained sizeable populations of Francophones, Ukrainians, Jews, Germans, Poles and Scandinavians.

The city's polyglot makeup is the springboard for his analysis.

"How united was the response to war in a city as socially and ethnically diverse as Winnipeg?" he asks. "The question defies easy answer, given the potential social and ideological fault lines among the city's population."

To that end, he examines local reaction to everything from war-bonds drives and the internment of "aliens" (mostly Japanese-Canadians) to government financial and housing support to soldiers' families and the social problems engendered by long-term separation of soldiers and spouses.

The book features some 30 terrific black and white wartime street-scene photos (troops marching down Memorial Boulevard, V-E celebrations at Portage and Main, salvage-corps trucks collecting scrap metal in the suburbs) and reproductions of jazzy war-bonds promo posters.

The best photos are of "If Day," a bit of early street theatre designed to encourage the purchase of war bonds and illustrate what Manitobans stood to lose if the Axis powers won the war.

On Feb. 19, 1942 the Nazis (played by 40 young members of the Manitoba Board of Trade in rented-from-Hollywood Wehrmacht uniforms) invaded Winnipeg, complete with guns and riding in captured Bren gun carriers.

The book includes photos of victorious Nazi troops parading down Portage Avenue (re-named Adolf Hitler Strasse), Manitoba premier John Bracken and his cabinet being marched off for internment under armed guard, the swastika flag being raised over Lower Fort Garry and a Nazi book-burning bonfire outside the Carnegie (William Avenue) public library.

The fake Nazi occupation of Himmlerstadt, as the city was re-named, was so successful it made news around the world and resulted in other North American cities aping the idea.

An academic historian writing for the popular market has to steer a careful course, charting a route midway between the hazards of rarefied scholarly research on one side and an accessible but oversimplified account on the other.

Perrun largely avoids both perils.

And though he sometimes gets bogged down in stats and technical data, and occasionally fails to optimally condense his primary sources, on the whole he gets high marks as a popularizer with a keen analytical bent.

 

Douglas J. Johnston is a Winnipeg lawyer and writer.